Shades of Grey and Black

Dark Nights, Dark Deeds, and a Final March

None of the companions were able to extract Ffion from Gilmore's side and Alistair would be lying if he claimed it didn't bother him. The jealousy that reared its ugly head was more intense than it had ever been with Zevran and he couldn't even afford the luxury of traveling with his fellow Warden like the Elf did. Teagan and Eamon kept him very busy with plans for the future and his only moments of peace came when he slept. But in all honesty, he couldn't fault Ffion for this. She had told him that Gilmore was one of her dearest friends and she had believed he was dead. Wouldn't he be wild with joy to find a long lost friend and forget about the outside world while they caught up? So in the absence of talking with her, he found himself slipping into the old pattern and watching her intently.

Ffion was never the wiser. She couldn't let Gilmore out of her sight and though his strength seemed to disappear alarmingly fast during their conversations, she was more than content to walk alongside the wagon in companionable silence. Her companions, save Alistair, all gathered around as well and seemed to prefer walking with the wagon to shuffling along with Eamon's contingent. She missed the ex-Templar's presence and though there was a daily fear that Gilmore would let something slip about Highever and her parents, Eamon kept Alistair busy. The change in him still shocked her and she saw new facets of it each day. He stepped into this role more thoroughly than they had ever thought he would and was becoming more and more like his father. The Warden finally spoke to Gilmore about keeping her heritage secret and though he didn't quite understand her reasoning, especially now that Howe was dead, he promised his silence.

For himself, Gilmore was struck at the changes in his old friend. For the most part, she had remained blunt, honest little Ffion, but her grey eyes held a new callousness that this life had brought about. Not that he was surprised. He knew what had happened at Highever and those succeeding months had changed them forever. They would never go back to 'Rick and Fi' as it had been when they were young; their jokes were tempered with a steel that wasn't there before; and their smiles were those grim ones intimately familiar with pain and heartache. But then the Dwarf or Zevran would repeat a crude joke to Ffion and she would light up completely, and it did Gilmore's heart good to see this. She still had the irreverent sense of humor and trait of blurting whatever entered her head and these told him that his old friend, his Fi, was still beneath this hard shell that she had grown. And sometimes he could believe that he was too. Though his pain was ever present and the cough still rattled him in a discouraging way.

The enchanter was wonderful to have around when this occurred and she looked after everyone with a maternal fondness that reminded him painfully of Eleanor. As for the other companions: the witch ignored him and so he returned the favor even though her beauty made that rather difficult. Sten treated him with some indifference after being introduced and the way the Qunari looked after Ffion amused him. He was just so huge and he dwarfed her entirely when they scouted together; with Tilly in tow of course. The Mabari had been almost as happy as Ffion to see him and he had missed the chestnut hound. Leliana was friendly and open; the same with Oghren. The Orlesian was delighted to learn that Gilmore had a memory for the stories from his childhood and Oghren's quips and jokes were returned with equally lewd ones that won the Dwarf over without trouble. It was the last two companions that Gilmore wasn't sure of.

Zevran came off as charming and friendly, but he was too smooth. His suavity rubbed Gilmore the wrong way, never mind that he treated Ffion like she was made of glass and seemed bent on keeping the Warden happy. It was on the third day of their travels before the realization hit Gilmore like a lightning bolt. He felt poorly that day and Ffion knew this and while Wynne fussed over him, Zevran leaned close to the Warden and began whispering in her ear. It was clearly a learned practice and Ffion sent the Elf a wary look before smiling and then laughing at whatever he had told her. She shoved his shoulder in the way that Gilmore remembered her doing to him and scolded him for being crass. Zevran's face lit up much in the same way that Ffion's had and when she turned away, Gilmore was the only one to see that odd half-pleased, half-crushed look the Elf gave her. It hit him then that Zevran was in love with his friend and he didn't look away in time to avoid the strange amber eyes. As usual, the Elf could read his face expertly and he glanced quickly at Ffion's back before shrugging comically at the young man and giving him a small shake of the head. Nothing needed to be said and Gilmore felt an odd pang of regret for the Elf. And then Ffion moved to him and he wasn't given the chance to consider this.

Alistair, meanwhile...

While Zevran hid his feelings flawlessly, it was obvious to everyone that Alistair was completely smitten with Ffion. Well, obvious to all except the girl herself. She clearly knew that he cared for her, but she was unaware of just how much. Alistair stood closer than he needed to when they spoke and his honey eyes fixed on her face as though he was afraid he would miss something if he so much as glanced away. On her part, Ffion didn't let him catch her completely alone and she would flush with annoyance and something like pleasure when Leliana poked fun at her about it. The Orlesian didn't do so maliciously and Gilmore thought that it was done in the same fashion that Zevran's jokes were used. They were trying to keep Ffion distracted and he couldn't help but wonder why.

The Warden hadn't told him the details of Howe's death and she hadn't planned on it either. Not anytime soon, anyway. She was so happy to have him at her side again and she wasn't willing to let that story shadow it.

The roads back to Redcliffe were rife with Darkspawn, but it wasn't ever overwhelming. The only time there was a concern for the wagon was when an ogre happened to be present. But Ffion's companions had been together long enough that they knew where each other were on the battlefield and Eamon's soldiers were skilled fighters. Riordan had asked to travel with them and his experience was a great boon to Ffion and Alistair. He was a wealth of information and more often than not, Ffion sought out his company when they camped for the night. She didn't have too much to worry about as leader of the armies just yet and her curiousity about the fate of the Wardens was stronger than ever. And Riordan was pleased to answer her questions.

"It is impossible to say how many Wardens are left in Ferelden," He said as they settled by one of two fires built for the night. He crouched and stared into the flames as Ffion sat against a log with Tilly sprawled beside her. Sten and Oghren, under the careful watch of Wynne, helped Gilmore sit beside Ffion and his shoulder bumped her own as he shifted to a more comfortable position. Zevran perched on the log at Ffion's other side, his legs stretched over Tilly's heavy body. Leliana had taken up her harp and was strumming quietly while Morrigan sat silent and thoughtful, and Alistair broke from Eamon and Teagan and dropped beside Riordan, "After the disaster at Ostagar, I cannot say how many were able to escape as you and Alistair did. Which is why it was such a blessing to have those papers returned to us. To get a full count of the Wardens as a whole, one would need to travel to Weisshaupt and consult the registers there."

"Have you ever been to Weisshaupt?" Ffion asked and smiled at Zevran when he handed her a flask of wine. She immediately thought of the Fade and the deception within and the wine was a welcome distraction.

"Once, and very briefly," Riordan's voice was wry, "It was the middle of the winter and not the most welcoming place in the world. I have the strongest impressions of everything being cold and grey."

"A sharp contrast to lovely Orlais, no?" Leliana offered with a dimpling smile.

Riordan inclined his head to her, a small grin gracing his mouth and bringing about that stark change in his features. He looked so much younger when he smiled.

"Indeed," He replied, "Orlais is a place to be missed if it is winter here."

"Just the winter?" Alistair repeated and a grin started at the corners of his mouth, "You mean you don't mind the fall rains... and the spring rains... and the summer rains?"

"Bah, yer all daft," Oghren cut in while the others smiled, "Yeh'll 'ave nothin' to grouse 'bout if yeh were in Orzammar. We 'ave more important thin's to worry 'bout down there."

"Like who's going to win the next nug wrangling contest?" Gilmore spoke calmly and easily, his tone one that Ffion remembered well. He used to get away with way too much because he kept his voice to that caliber of unassuming sweetness.

Oghren let out a loud guffaw of laughter while the others grinned and Ffion pounced on the words.

"How in the Maker's name did I miss these nug references for so long?" She demanded.

This caused outright laughter from most of her companions and they spent the next few hours in lively discussion of just how vague nug references really were.

As though Alistair's talk of Ferelden rains held magic, the heavens opened the next morning and unleashed a downpour. The road turned to mud beneath their feet and Gilmore's wagon had to be repositioned in the grassy plain. The wet weather worsened his cough and Wynne fussed over him continually until he told her that this was most likely a new norm for his life and added that he would call her the instant he felt worse. The enchanter clearly didn't like it but knew that he was right and so turned her attention to the others to keep them healthy in this constant damp. And she did her work very well. They only suffered a handful of colds on the road and when they started into the hills around Redcliffe they found that they needed every available fighter.

The Darkspawn were more prolific than ever and worry settled into their ranks. They forwent camp that last night and pushed through the hills in the dark as a storm kicked up and made them even more miserable. The gusts howled around the village of Redcliffe and Alistair, Ffion, and Riordan were detrimental in keeping watch as they realized the Darkspawn had targeted the place and were actively wreaking havoc. They crested the last hills in the wee hours of the morning and prepared a full on frontal attack.

Murdock had clearly been able to retain some semblance of a force to protect the castle and even as Eamon and Ffion's troops poured from the hills to take on the company of monsters that swarmed the village, shouts were heard and Orzammar's army was hot on their heels. The Darkspawn did not expect this and they fell quickly to the flashing blades, dangerous arrows, and devastating magic. In no time, the village was clear and by the time the sky lightened, they were advancing on the castle and destroying the last of the monsters that had retreated to the massive gates. There was damage done to the reinforced wood, but they had held and the exhausted soldiers cheered the return of their Arl with tangible relief.

Eamon's first priority was to check on Isolde and Conner who were frightened but safe and then he saw to the cleaning and providing of the village. The damage from the Darkspawn was bad, but the loss of life was minimal and the villagers were better prepared than previously believed. By early afternoon, with the Dwarves' help, Redcliffe was more or less back to normal and the evening's feast, though subdued, was well stocked. The Arl received a messenger halfway through the meal but waited until the food was cleared away and people started trailing to bed before he gathered Ffion, Alistair, and Riordan to his office.

Morrigan watched them go with a resigned, knowing expression.

The Arl paced before the fire when they entered the room and Teagan who had been leaning against the heavy desk, inclined his head to them with a tired smile and left. Eamon's face was more deeply lined even with their small victory here and a moment later they found out why.

"We have had word of the bulk of the horde," He said and couldn't seem to hold still, "A messenger arrived not long after we did and reported in."

"And the word is?" Ffion quizzed, moving to the fire and trying to keep her nerves from showing.

The Arl appreciated this blunt, straightforward approach and was grateful for the Warden's eternal consistency.

"They are advancing on Denerim and will arrive at the city within a week," He said and then added before they could interrupt, "And the Archdemon has finally made its appearance. At the head of the horde."

Alistair's face set and he glanced quickly at Ffion whose gaze hadn't left Eamon. Her grey eyes were unreadable for once and Riordan gave a small nod like he hadn't expected to hear anything else.

"A week?" Alistair repeated, "And it could take us almost two weeks to reach Denerim. So what's the plan?"

Eamon was the first to look at Ffion and the other two followed suit. She frowned thoughtfully and didn't shy away from this new responsibility. Reaching up with one hand, she tugged at a curl and then her grey eyes went back to the Arl.

"Well, leaving tonight won't do us any good," She said finally, "The Dwarves are here, of course, and I look to see the Dalish by first thing tomorrow morning. The Circle is the only questionable one. I suggest setting out when the Elves arrive and making the best time that we can. Irving won't let us down, but if we can't wait, we can't wait. Your men are ready, Eamon?"

The Arl silently commended Alistair for appointing this girl to her position. Her common sense was enviable and though she had much to learn, she proved to be a very quick learner.

"They are and Murdock has another small force to add to ours," He answered, "And leaving in the morning would be the best. That way the last minute preparations will not be rushed."

Ffion nodded and then glanced between the other two men. She was stroking Tilly's head and the thrill of excitement that went through her had been absent for too long.

"All right, then," She said, "Is that it?"

"That was all I needed of you," Eamon answered.

Riordan stepped forward a little and his grey eyes were serious.

"I have to speak with Ffion and Alistair, Arl; Warden business," He said, "Could we use this room?"

"Certainly," Eamon disguised his surprise and moved to the door, "I am retiring for the night and we will set out again in the morning."

He closed the door as he left and Alistair and Ffion turned their attention to Riordan. He paced closer to the fire and Alistair did the same. Ffion remained where she was as the ex-Templar moved to her side and they waited for Riordan to speak.

"I have been meaning to ask you this for some time," He began slowly, "I was not sure how much Duncan had time to tell you, Alistair. And I would be surprised if you knew anything at all about this, Ffion. But... do either of you know why the Wardens are vital to ending the Blight?"

The Wardens exchanged glances and then Ffion shrugged.

"I always figured it was because the taint gave us an edge over other warriors. I mean, it gives us the ability and skill in sensing their presence."

Riordan shook his head and his expression lengthened.

"If it were that simple than any warrior would suffice," He answered and there was rueful tone in his voice, "But you are not entirely wrong. The Archdemon must be slain, of course, but if any but a Grey Warden were to attempt this, the essence of the beast would merely be drawn to the nearest Darkspawn and a new Archdemon would be reborn. This makes it all but invincible," He hesitated and seemed completely unsure for the first time since they had met him, "But when a Grey Warden deals the killing blow, the essence travels into the Warden instead."

Ffion had leveled her gaze on him and Alistair frowned deeply.

"But what does that mean for the Warden?" He asked slowly, "It can't be healthy for anyone to have the essence of something like that shooting through him."

"As you know, the Darkspawn are soulless monsters and we are not," His grey eyes were steady. It wouldn't do them any good to have him falter in this now, "The essence of the Archdemon is destroyed when this occurs and so is the Warden. A heavy price to pay, yes, but a necessary one. Without the Archdemon, the Darkspawn are lost and helpless. They will retreat without a fight."

Alistair was at a loss for words and Ffion went pale but she still stood straight. Her brows furrowed and she tried to get her head wrapped around this.

"But the Warden dies," She didn't mean for it to be a question and Riordan merely inclined his head to show he was listening, "How in... How do you even begin to decide who makes this sacrifice? It seems a little like pretending you're the Maker himself; deciding someone's fate."

Riordan smiled at this, it was an argument that he had heard several times in the past and he wasn't the least surprised that it was Ffion to point it out. The girl was remarkably perceptive. She hardly seemed to realize this at times.

"During the past Blights it has always been that the most senior Warden dealt the final blow," He replied, "Since I am the eldest out of the three, I will do so. No, do not argue with me. We will follow tradition and this is something I have been prepared to do for quite some time. The taint will not spare me much longer."

Ffion's face softened while Alistair's hardened and neither one of them liked this outcome.

"Riordan," Ffion said quietly and she found herself twisting her fingers together as she always did when a situation became heavy.

"This is a Warden's life," He interrupted and his voice was rueful again, "If I fail in this, then it will be up to you two. Remember: the Blight must be defeated while we have this chance or Ferelden will be destroyed. Do not hesitate in your duty; this is what Duncan would have cautioned against as well. And do not fret over me. This life has never afforded any of us the luxury of growing old. I am ready," A heavy, unhappy silence fell as Alistair and Ffion both tried to think up arguments against this and then Riordan added, "But enough of this talk. I will let you two go and get some rest. If we are to leave first thing in the morning than you will want any sleep you might be offered. We will talk more on the return trip. Good night."

Alistair and Ffion exchanged glances again and this subject was much too heavy to discuss now. And then Riordan opened the office door and spoke briefly to someone in the hall. The Wardens turned to it and Gilmore's voice sounded from the doorway.

"There you are, Fi," He said and his voice was a little hoarse after that last bout with the stubborn cold Wynne had tried to protect him from, "If you don't need her, Alistair, may I borrow her?"

Ffion's cheeks flushed with the look that Alistair sent her and her grey eyes became over-bright. She met the ex-Templar's gaze, her stomach flip-flopping within her and her heart thudding heavily, and she could only hope that he wouldn't act on the desire she saw in his face.

"I suppose," He said finally and clenched his hands to keep from reaching out and tucking that curl behind her ear, "I'll see you in the morning. Good night."

She smiled, nodding her head.

"Good night."

"I just wanted you to walk with me for a bit," Gilmore explained, amused in spite of everything by the way these two treated one another, "It's okay if-"

"No, I'm coming," Ffion was at his elbow and she sent Alistair his smile as she walked down the hallway with her old friend.

Alistair's own smile felt goofy and despite the news they had just received, he felt strangely light as he wandered back to his own bedroom. The oil lamps were dark and the fire in the hearth was the only light in the room. The flickering shadows made strange shapes and one of these was breaking from the wall beside the hearth and stepping forward when he came through the doorway. He froze and tried to get his eyes to adjust and he wasn't sure if he should be relieved or even more worried when the shape spoke.

"Do not be alarmed. 'Tis only me," Morrigan obviously tried to temper her voice, not that he could discern any real difference.

"Odd, most of us would think that would be plenty to worry about," As usual Alistair couldn't help but provoke her, "Or are you thinking of turning over a new leaf? Got to be honest with you, Morrigan, sneaking up on people in a dark room doesn't really instill any lasting confidence."

Morrigan clenched her hands and bit her tongue. Her rational side was demanding to know why she was asking Alistair when she had Ffion, but she knew that the ex-Templar's feelings would be so much more exploitable than the Warden's and she didn't think that she could ask this of Ffion. And never mind that it would serve both of them in the end.

"I am not here to instill confidence," She replied and strove to keep her voice calm, "This is so much more important than that."

Alistair stared at her for a heartbeat longer and then crossed the room to the oil lamps. He lit one and faced the witch again. Folding his arms across his chest and wondering what made her so desperate as to seek him out, he arched his brows.

"I'm listening."

Morrigan glanced quickly at the door that had been partially swung shut and then became the cool, superior witch that had always irked him.

"I came here to tell you that I know what must be done to kill the Archdemon," She began and tried to search for the right words, "In addition to this, I also have a way out of that fate. I have found the loop to your hole and can give you the means to avoid the death of any Warden."

Alistair's brows inched up even further and he was rather annoyed at the little spark of hope that lit within him. He had to grudgingly admit that if anyone had the power to avoid the Wardens' fate it would be Morrigan, but he wasn't willing to accept blindly.

"If you're suggesting that we run away, I should tell you that you're the last person I would choose to escape with," His Templar-trained, automatic suspicion of mages always came roaring back when he spoke with the witch and that made his voice dry.

"A sentiment I share," She answered coldly and kept her temper remarkably well, "No, what I suggest is a ritual as old as time itself. A ritual that must be completed tonight, under cover of darkness. A stormy night for an act that belongs to such an environment... A dark night for dark deeds..."

"All right, I was nervous before but now I'm downright creeped out," Alistair's voice had become impatient and he stepped forward as though to steer her out of the room, "If you're not going to be straight with me, Morrigan-"

"You must hear me out," She interrupted and some of the desperation and uneasiness she had felt for the past few weeks carried through in her words. She despised her show of weakness and then saw that this was what kept Alistair from kicking her out. He stopped and stared at her with surprise shining in his honey eyes, "May I speak without interruption? After I have told you everything, then you can throw me out and curse my name as you wish to."

The ex-Templar blinked. Morrigan was actually asking instead of assuming and it came out more kindly than anything else he had ever heard from her. He nodded before he realized it and stepped back, settling on the foot of his bed. The witch paced to the fire again and the flickering light danced off her face, making her beauty somehow terrible to behold. She looked every inch the Witch of the Wilds.

"As I said, I know what the Wardens must face to kill the Archdemon and I have discovered a solution," She kept her voice quiet, smooth, rather like Zevran when he got into one of his more suggestive moods and it made Alistair's skin crawl. The witch wisely refrained from mentioning where she had found this secret. A sure-fire way to set Alistair completely against her would be informing him that Flemeth's grimoire held the Wardens' salvation in its ancient pages, "What you need is a fourth tainted spirit, a newly conceived one. When the Archdemon is slain, its soul will seek out this fourth spirit like a beacon. The pull it will feel for it will save the Wardens and their allies from any threats."

"A fourth with the taint?" Alistair repeated, unable to keep silent any longer, "That doesn't make any sense, Morrigan, if you mean what you say about keeping the Wardens alive."

Morrigan shook her raven head, her gold eyes unreadable. She took a breath and steeled herself as best she could for the ex-Templar's reaction to her next words.

"You are mistaken. I meant 'conceived' quite literally. Lay with me tonight, Alistair, and I will conceive a child with the taint already flowing within it. Strike the killing blow and the essence of the Archdemon will-"

"Andraste's bloody... flaming... blasted..." Alistair partially rose from the mattress, his eyes huge with shock. He couldn't seem to find an oath quite strong enough to match what he started with and so he tried again, "Shit, Morrigan, you can't be serious? Lay with... What the hell are you driving at?"

"You told me that you would listen before you tossed me out," She countered, trapping him with his own promise.

"Yeah, but I didn't know you were going to ask that!" He exclaimed and his cheeks flooded with bright color. Being embarrassed and incensed at the same time did little for rational thought and he added rather lamely, "Shit, you hate me. What did you think I was going to say to this?"

Morrigan folded her arms over her chest and studied him coolly. She tried to tread carefully. She needed him if she was to see this through and she felt that odd pang when she considered what would happen to Ffion if there was no alternative to a Warden being killed. If Riordan failed, Ffion wouldn't let Alistair make a move against the Archdemon and as long as it was within her power to do so, Morrigan would make sure that the young Warden didn't face the repercussions of this heavy burden fate had shouldered her with. And of course, she herself would get what she wanted in the end.

"You are not standing by your word," She repeated stubbornly and the icy edge was back, "Allow me to finish explaining. When the Archdemon is killed the taint of the fourth will absorb its essence, saving the Wardens and ending the Blight. You, Riordan, and Ffion are left alive and the Darkspawn will retreat. I will disappear in that same instant. I will have what I want and the... child will not threaten your or your heir's claims to the throne. I will be left to raise the child on my own and you will not seek me out at any time after the Blight has ended. I want the soul of an old god and this will more than suffice. You want to live to see the Blight ended and I am showing you the way. We both achieve our ends."

Alistair was on his feet, pacing in agitation. He wasn't sure what made him angrier: the fact that Morrigan thought she could actually pull this off or that he was seriously considering it.

"Why are you talking like I've already agreed to do this?" He demanded and turned abruptly to face her. Her gold eyes glittered in the light and she was more beautiful than he ever remembered her being. Strange how it never seemed to affect him until now, when there was the possibility that... "You're not being entirely honest with me, Morrigan. Why are you here talking with me and not offering this same thing to Riordan? He's a Warden, too, remember? Or was he so horrified by the idea that-"

"You wear your heart on your sleeve, Alistair, you always have," She interrupted with an absence of venom that made him even more nervous. Her magic shimmered in the air around her and she knew how irresistible this was to any man. Alistair was no exception and though her distaste for doing this with him was strong, her desire for her 'old god' was even stronger. She tempered her voice and it became husky, almost wanton, "Think what this will mean for you. Striking the killing blow to the Archdemon and living to tell the tale. The first Warden to live through this and be marveled for the rest of your life," She moved closer, watching his expression like a cat and changing her tack when he wasn't receptive to this argument. She had known he wouldn't be and so had saved her strongest ammunition for the end. He wouldn't be able to withstand this attack, "Or you may consider this. If Riordan does not kill the beast, if something were to prevent him from accomplishing his goal, do you truly believe, even for a moment, that Ffion will not step forward and slay the Archdemon herself? Do you think she will be content to stand aside and allow the King of Ferelden to sacrifice himself when it is within her power to save him?"

"I won't let her," Alistair had stopped pacing and his voice was hoarse. His heart jumped in fear at that thought and then he found himself wondering when Morrigan had moved so close to him.

"No?" She was practically whispering now, leaning towards him as her magic wound around both of them, "You would kill the beast yourself and leave the woman you love alone; feeling as though she has failed you? Could you do this to the one you have sworn to protect and keep close? Your love has been through so many trials, you would consent to her going through one more severe than all the rest? There is no reason for this added heartache. I hold the power that will allow you to remain together through this... It is one night, Alistair. One night in the hundreds you will have with your love. Tell me it is not worth this small sacrifice."

Alsitair was lost in the witch's stunning gold eyes; so close he was able to count the thick lashes that skirted them. Her words made sense and though he knew it was the magic that she was weaving about the room, he couldn't bring himself to put a stop to it. He kept seeing Ffion: her direct, honest grey eyes, the small round face surrounded by the cloud of unruly chocolate curls. The quick, dimpling grin when she heard a lewd joke and the delighted peal of laughter when Oghren proved himself to be the most irreverent one among them; he saw her determined fight in the Deep Roads and the way she reached for him at Tapsters, lifting her face to his and...

"This is wrong," He heard himself say and wondered if it was really his voice. The words were spoken so roughly and his hands grasped the witch's waist without his brain telling them to do so, "If anyone knew..."

"No one will," She replied and shook that magnificent raven head when he bent closer, "Not here. Follow me in a moment."

She stepped lightly to the door and disappeared from view. Alistair waited a moment, still bewitched by her, and then trailed after. He wasn't sure how he knew where to go, but some quiet voice in his head whispered that everything about Morrigan, everything within her, was controlled by that same compelling magic and he twisted through the castle until he found a room tucked entirely away from the rest. She hadn't lighted any lamps and he hesitated for the first time as her arms twined around him.

"Wait," He whispered and added like a prayer, "Ffion-"

"Ffion must never know," Morrigan said firmly, her voice still soft and seductive. Her lips were next to his ear and her breath hot on his skin, "Never. No more time can be wasted... You will not hate this as much as you might believe."

Dark night for dark deeds... Morrigan's words echoed back to Alistair, almost as though they were mocking him. And as he gave himself up to the deed, he couldn't agree more. He was lost in a world consumed by nothing but pleasure and when he slunk from it again, he hated himself. Immersed in sin... New words teased him now and though he couldn't remember who had told him that, he knew it had been in relation to a young whore who had bounced between the Chantry and the brothel before meeting a tragic end at the hands of one of her customers. Were his own actions here, tonight, any different?

Immersed in sin... Morrigan's hands pressing him close, the earthy smell of her raven hair, the intoxicating silkiness of her skin...

Alistair shuddered, trying to shake these thoughts as he slumped against the wall in the deserted hallway. He tried to think of Ffion, the woman he had ultimately done this for, and the small vestige of what was good and pure in his head berated him harshly, telling him that he couldn't use her innocence to replace his. Almost groaning aloud as he realized just how lost he had become, he pushed from the wall and sent a plea for forgiveness to the Maker.

The castle was still and silent and his way was clear as he trudged back to his room in abject misery. But as he put his hand on the door to hide away, a voice spoke from the shadows.

"You fool!" Zevran hissed and when he stepped forward the dim light showed Alistair just why it was the Elf could be so dangerous. His amber eyes glittered furiously and held none of their usual charm and his face set into hard, angry lines. He looked capable of anything, particularly anything violent. He moved forward and grabbed Alistair's arm roughly, shoving him into the bedroom before continuing his assault where they were less likely to be overheard, "Do you realize what this will do to her spirit? You complete fool, you could kill her with this!"

Alistair got angry in his turn. He yanked himself away and then stood straight, glaring at the Elf and trying to come back from the thought that Zevran was entirely in the right here and he didn't deserve to defend himself in this.

"She won't ever know," He replied sharply and added because he had to, "I know what I'm doing."

Zevran snorted and paced irritably away. He was fuming, angrier than he could remember being for a long time and he knew that stewing in this since he saw Alistair and Morrigan disappear together had not been healthy. He had been half-tempted to barge in on them and wondered what it was that had held him back. Glancing back at Alistair's face, seeing how much the ex-Templar needed to believe this, he couldn't help himself. He spat a few curses in Antivan and then rounded on Alistair again.

"Do you?" He demanded, "Do you truly know? Think of what you are getting involved with. This is Morrigan. The same Morrigan whose priority is her own neck and pretty as that may be, she is not to be trifled with. Blasted gods, Alistair! If Ffion even got a hint of this-"

"I told you, she won't ever know," Alistair interrupted harshly, his guilt heavier with the look of complete horror that that thought brought to Zevran's face, "You don't know the circumstances, Zevran, and be thankful for it. What I'm doing – what I did... it was for Ffion. And that's all you need to know. Neither one of us would ever hurt her and... If this hadn't been done, the repercussions would be terrible. I won't lose her. I can't lose her."

Zevran's jaw clenched and his amber eyes were shuttered. He remained motionless as he measured the ex-Templar. Alistair's face was so drawn, he looked so tired and young, and all the feelings he had for their little Warden were written across his face as though someone had taken ink and done just that. Letting out a resigned sigh, trying to still his anger, the Elf stepped forward, shaking his head.

"And the repercussions if someone else saw you and lets this slip? Will they be worth it?"

Alistair suddenly transformed, smoothing his expression like he was drawing curtains, and he became a king in that brief moment.

"If it meant saving her life, would you hesitate for even a minute?" He replied and his honey eyes were level on Zevran's amber, "You love her, too; you know how I feel. Would you really let serious harm come to her if you were offered the chance to prevent it?"

The Elf searched his face for a long moment, thinking of Rinna and how badly he had slipped there. He had had the chance to save her and let his own pride and righteous anger stand in the way. There was not a chance he would let that happen again, and most definitely not with Ffion. Not with the woman who had come to mean even more to him than his Rinna. Inclining his head, he moved towards the door.

"You know the answer to this already, yes?" He answered, "I just hope you are right in saying you know what you're doing."

Alistair hesitated a moment too long and the amber eyes were so quick to judge. He lifted his shoulders again and his voice was strong.

"Even with my doubts, Zevran, this is the way to save her. I'm doing what I have to and yes, I know what I've done; what I'm doing."

Zevran left the room, closing the door quietly behind him and Alistair immediately crossed to the pitcher of fresh water and big shallow bowl sitting on the cupboard. He dumped the water into the bowl and scrubbed at his face, trying to wash away those memories.

Immersed in sin... Dark deeds in a dark night...

It was a long time before his hands stopped trembling and would be even longer before he felt truly clean again.

The Elves arrived in the wee hours of the morning and, before dawn, Ffion met with both Harrowmont and his stewards and Lanaya to discuss their readiness to depart for Denerim. The whole caravan of Dalish had followed their Keeper of course and Eamon offered the village as a safe haven for those who would not be fighting the Darkspawn. The Dwarves and Elves were prepared to leave at any time and just before Ffion dispatched a messenger to the Circle, one of Eamon's scouts reported that a group of mages was two miles north of the village.

The Warden gave Eamon the word that the armies were ready when he was and then she sought out Gilmore. She was half-tempted to knock at Alistair's still closed door and check on him, but something made her change her mind and instead she moved down the hall to her friend's room. She rapped lightly on the door and opened it when he called an answer.

Gilmore stood by the window, looking out into the grey, bleak light of the coming day. His hands pressed against the windowsill and Ffion felt a cold dread seep into her heart. The normally broad straight shoulders were slumped and she saw with a start that Gilmore looked years older than what he was and she was suddenly forced to consider what the repercussions of his imprisonment at Howe's would be.

She moved to his side, standing close enough for their arms to brush and stared out the window with him. Through the faded light, they could make out darker shapes of the Elves and Dwarves scurrying back and forth from the village to the castle with Eamon's men as they made the few last minute preparations. The whole atmosphere of the castle was charged with excitement and anxiety and Ffion hoped this energy would be enough to sustain them through the travel back to Denerim.

"I wish I could go with you," Gilmore finally said and reached out to take one of her hands in his, "But Wynne is very..."

"Persuasive?" Ffion offered and had to keep her voice soft. The emotions she had suppressed while prepping the armies were now vying for control here and she didn't know how long her voice would stay steady and even.

"I was going to say rather terrifying," He replied wryly and the smile he sent her was gentle, "Kind of like your marmie."

Ffion's eyes smarted with tears and she ducked her head against his arm. Pressing her cheek there, she had to swallow before she could venture an answer to that one.

"That's the impression I always got, too," She said and the words were muffled against him.

"Tell me, Fi, please," Gilmore implored quietly, "Tell me what happened."

She inhaled quickly and held the breath against the pain and heartache that flooded her. Her fingers bit into Gilmore's hand and she raised her head, looking out the window again. She knew what he meant and though her words were hesitant at first, she finally told him the circumstances surrounding Howe's death, speaking to the glass and feeling his eyes on her face. She even steeled herself and related the subsequent imprisonment at Fort Drakon, though she excluded her run-in with the bastard's soldiers.

"They left you alone?" He asked sharply and his meaning was clear.

"Yes, they left me alone," She bit her lip briefly; it wasn't a lie, "I think they would have preferred to house me in some form of seclusion, but they had another prisoner there already. They won't make that mistake again."

"It's no use, Fi, you're keeping something from me," He said, knowing this girl inside and out. She blanched and he turned his body to lean against the windowsill and look her full in the face, "What is it?"

She took a deep breath and shook her head at him. Her grey eyes suddenly became shuttered and she pressed her free hand against their clasped ones. The brand was tight and the bruises on her neck had faded; the scar left from the Dwarf assassin's blade was jagged across her lower back, the bumps and bruises from the Fade and Ostagar long since healed. But it never ceased to amaze her how painful all of it was, no matter how much time passed.

"No, Rick," She replied softly and smiled at him, "Not now. It's... let's just say it's too soon. The reason I stopped in was to say good bye. I left you that night to face... hell and broke our promise. I hardly had the chance to give you a proper good bye and I'm not going to let that happen again."

Gilmore tightened his hold on her, fear stabbing through him at the determined look on her face. That look always preceded her getting into trouble and this time the results would be so much more serious and deadly than a simple scolding from loving parents.

"No, no, Ffion, I know that look," He said and forced a little smile, "I wasn't as addled as that in that dungeon. And you're talking like you don't think...? – No, expect to come back. Tell me that's not true."

"You know I can't," She stepped closer and brushed his hair back at his temple. There was a spot of blond-almost grey starting there and she couldn't imagine the horrors he had lived through. His nose, repaired to the best of Wynne's abilities, held a crookedness that was rather charming but his green eyes had lost nearly all of their spark, "And I don't think it's right to pretend, not anymore. I love you, Rick. You're my brother, my dearest friend, and if I-"

"Don't say it," His voice was rough with emotion and he stood, pulling her into his arms and pressing his cheek to her chocolate hair. There was movement at his doorway, but Eamon wisely didn't interrupt, "Let's play pretend one last time and say we'll see each other in a couple of weeks. You can't deny a sick man that."

Ffion released a shaky chuckle and when Gilmore let her go, she took his face in her hands and rose up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek.

"Agreed," She answered, "Now rest up, we'll have plenty of havoc to wreak when I get back if we're going to be 'Rick and Fi' again."

"That's never changed," It was his turn to brush her temple and his expression was so tender, "And it never will. Be careful, little one."

Tears burned in Ffion's eyes again and she gave him one last hug before turning to the door. It hurt too much to hear Fergus' endearment right now and Eamon proved a good distraction.

"We're ready to march, Ffion."

The dark grey days and threats of thunder and lightning storms suited Alistair's mood. He couldn't look Morrigan in the eye and Zevran treated him with more aloof indifference than usual. Though the Elf was such a brilliant performer one could hardly see the change. And Ffion...

The Warden clearly missed Gilmore and for the first couple of days on the road, she bounced restlessly between the entourage of nobles with Harrowmont and his army, Lanaya and her elders, and Irving's mages. Solona had petitioned to join the First Enchanter and the two women became fast friends.

Ffion also met with Eamon and Teagan in the evenings to discuss their strategies for the upcoming battle and Alistair always joined them, but there was only so much they could do without knowing the formations of the Darkspawn ranks. She would have spent time with Alistair and this was part of her restlessness. He held her at arms' length and steeled himself to the pain of her bewilderment. No one needed to point out to him the uncharacteristic change and he didn't think he could alter it, no matter how much he might want to.

Long ago he had put Ffion up on a pedestal and allowed her to become his banner, his reason to succeed in this fight. She transformed from his fellow Warden into a pinnacle consisting of all they were fighting for and in that one night, with that one dark deed, he destroyed any right he had to those feelings for her. In one fell swoop, he severed himself from anything pure and untouched by the evil in the world and to him, Ffion encompassed both of these things. He could suddenly understand Oghren's jokes with a familiarity that made him even more uncomfortable and Wynne started studying him with her foreboding frown and making him realize how obviously rattled he really was.

Not that he brought himself to care much. His attentions were the same as they had been with Teagan and Eamon, he still endlessly planned and discussed Ferelden's future after the Blight, but he withdrew from the companions that had seen him this far and the negative influence this had on Ffion permeated to everyone. Without her fellow Warden's company, without his teasing, the quips and silly jokes, without his attention, Ffion lost some of her spirit and she drooped, and no matter what Zevran and Oghren said or did, she had a difficult time coming back from this. She missed him. And when this was pointed out very bluntly to the ex-Templar, it came from the last person he wanted to see.

The armies stretched across the valley where they had staked camp for the night. They were perhaps three days out of Denerim and in spite of this, Ffion had had an off day. Alistair, his guilt heavier than ever, shook off his uncles and wandered to a small rise behind the collection of his companions' tents.

The sounds of the men and women eating and chatting carried through the air and he spotted Ffion sitting on the ground with Tilly's head in her lap. The light of their fire flickered on her face and gleamed in her chocolate curls as she spoke animatedly with Riordan, coming back from the dark thoughts that had consumed her all that day. The others were relaxed around her, talking amiably, and the sight of this only made Alistair feel worse. The knowledge that he would be more than welcome there didn't help and he skirted them, avoiding their attention, and slipped into the few bare trees that crowned the little rise. He leaned against the rough bark of one of them and stared at the winking patchwork of tents and fires spread before him.

He blew it and he knew that, but what could he have done? Morrigan had been so persuasive; she played him flawlessly, exploiting the one thing in his life that he didn't want to live without. And he went along with it. That was the thing that was so hard to reconcile. He had known the repercussions before the act was even done and as petulant as it sounded, he didn't even have the luxury of claiming he had had no foreknowledge.

"You are aware, I hope, that you are acting an incorrigible ass," The cold voice was unmistakable and the bushes hardly stirred as Morrigan approached him.

Alistair pushed from the tree, hating the color that flooded his cheeks and wishing the visions that came back to him weren't real.

"And you're aware you're the last person I want to see, right?"

"We have made our choice," She replied and folded her arms over her chest. It irritated him that she looked more beautiful than ever in the twilight, "And now we put it behind us where it belongs and finish our task. We have both received what we wanted, yes? Then there is no need to have this discussion."

"That's just the point of the discussion," He snapped back, "We got what we wanted, sure, but what's the cost, Morrigan? I can't even... It was a mistake and I never should have let you talk me into it. The way I feel now... It's not worth it."

"'Tis not?" She asked and studied his unhappy expression. When she was honest with herself, she had known that Alistair would be this way about that night, it was simply his nature. Her own misgivings about the ritual had blessedly been unfounded and though the initial distaste for doing this with him had been strong, the feeling hadn't lasted long. Alistair was a handsome man, strong, and determined; in short he had been ideal. Riordan was too old for such a thing, the taint had run its course too long in him, and she knew the moment it had happened that Alistair had given her what she wanted. She would have her 'old god' and Alistair would have his queen so long as he didn't allow this silly despair to so consume him that he got himself killed in the fight with the Darkspawn, "Alistair, quit playing the martyr and be reasonable about this. You must look at the benefits of such an act."

"Stop it," He said with a wave of his hand and the magic that shimmered and wove through the air was dampened, "You really think I'd let you pull that trick again? You need some new moves, Morrigan. And you can't expect me to bounce back from this without some lingering effects. I mean, what we did... I - I don't know how to deal with it."

She saw the spark of his old spirit in his eyes and she bit her tongue against the sharp retort. She hated to be cut from her magic and she shifted uncomfortably, hiding it from the ex-Templar with the expertise that years of experience brought her. Her gold eyes glittered as she looked up at him.

"What we did was merely sex, Templar," She tempered her voice into steel again and meant to poke and prod him into some state of excitement for the upcoming battle. As usual, his feelings would perk Ffion and they needed their Warden back to her old self or that night would be for naught.

"Are you crazy?" He hissed, his honey eyes wide as he glanced over her shoulder at the fire flickering around the companions' tents. The small clump of trees somewhat hid them from view and the wind was freshening again, smelling like rain, which would keep the activity to a minimum. But Zevran's tent was fairly close to the bushes on the other side of the trees and though the Elf already knew, he wasn't looking to have another tense conversation with him, "Why don't we just-"

"They will not hear. Do not think I am a fool," She replied sharply and her power surged back through her.

Alistair's Templar training made it possible to feel that tug of magic and he let it go. She had her uses, this Witch of the Wilds.

"I know you're not," He gave a resigned sigh, "That's the problem. Why are you here?"

She blinked. The ex-Templar surprised her more often than she cared to admit and he was so much more perceptive than they gave him credit for. Leliana had warned her of this and the witch had merely shrugged the implication away at the time, but the moments where he knew precisely what any one of the companions was thinking made her pause.

"Stop avoiding Ffion," She said firmly, "'Tis a silly, uncharacteristic practice for you and practically shouts that you are ashamed."

He gave a snort of laughter that was less than amused. His honey eyes shuttered and he arched his brows.

"So the fact that I actually am ashamed is - what? Just a fun side effect?"

"If you do not realize that you need to spend time with her to chase this absurd shame away, then you are the fool I always believed you to be," She snapped and they were back in their old positions of apostate witch-versus-Templar which, strangely, seemed to work best for the both of them, "You do not think you deserve her now and that would be correct. I do not believe you ever deserved her, but she is fond of you and misses you. Again, I am not entirely sure why. I know you do not trust me, Alistair. I have given you no reason to, but I am asking on her behalf. Unbelievable as it may be to you, I feel the same as you all do, that that girl is a soul to trust and respect. Trust to that at least."

She waited until she saw a little flicker in his eyes before turning to retreat to their circle of tents again. She had done her work and she knew that her chosen tack had been the right one. If he thought he could give some of Ffion's hope back than he would spring at the opportunity.

"And what am I supposed to say when they see both of us coming back from here?" He asked and was only partially serious.

She glanced over her shoulder at him with an arched brow.

"They believe I retired for the night," She answered, "There are numerous ways to sneak away from them, but if there are questions: lie. Tell them you spotted me sneaking away and your over-active Templar influenced imagination caused you to suspect I was going to drape myself in black mourning and appeal to my dark gods with blood sacrifices. You were simply trying to save your armies. This should have come easily to you."

Alistair was amused in spite of himself and the witch disappeared into the bushes. He heard a strange buzzing a moment later that faded into the night and he considered her words for a heartbeat longer. The sound of Oghren's gruff, loud voice and Zevran's retort preceding that peal of laughter from Ffion made up his mind. He pushed through the bushes and wandered to their fire.

Wynne and Leliana broke from their conversation to smile at him and he crossed to Ffion. Oghren and Sten were sharpening their blades and Zevran lounged close to the Warden. Tilly's heavy body was the only thing between them and Riordan had disappeared. The Warden sent a brilliant, hopeful smile up at him when he stopped beside her and his heart lifted. Morrigan was right... much as the thought galled him.

"You're here to stay, I hope?" She asked quietly and her clear grey eyes held none of the suspicion he had been so sure of seeing after leaving Redcliffe.

"If that spot's available," He replied and felt Zevran's gaze boring into him.

"Of course," She shifted on the ground, sitting a little straighter against the log and stretching her legs out towards the fire.

The ex-Templar dropped beside her and stroked Tilly's head when the Mabari stretched her neck across her lady's lap to lick his fingers. Zevran stared at him for half a moment longer and then leaned over to offer a flask of ale.

"So the royal bastard has descended from the heights to grace his fellows with his presence, yes?" The Elf quizzed and the amber eyes were dancing again. He hid the insult quite well there and Ffion's grin made it worth the sting, "We are honored."

"Drink it in while it lasts, ladies and gentlemen, your future opportunities... Well, they'll be pretty slim."

Ffion's chuckle was the cure he needed and for the first time in nearly two weeks, he felt like he had reason to hope again.

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